Dutrow ready to break mould with Big Brown

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The Independent Online

As it happens, the colt has changed hands since his christening. But you would imagine the name, with its hint of sacrilege, suits Rick Dutrow just fine. The way he has been talking about Big Brown, he is hardly going to discourage comparisons with the champion still revered, 35 years later, as "Big Red". This is no Secretariat, but his trainer's immodesty evokes another giant of the same era. People still remember Bud Delp coming to Churchill Downs in 1979 and introducing Spectacular Bid as "the best horse ever to look through a bridle".

Tomorrow Big Brown will start as favourite for perhaps the most brutally contested Flat race in the world. To Dutrow, however, the 134th Kentucky Derby looks a "mismatch". And he will put his money where his mouth is. When his first champion, Saint Liam, won the 2005 Breeders' Cup Classic, Dutrow borrowed every cent he could, wagering $180,000 (£91,250) to win $384,000. Since arriving in Louisville, he has again been promising that he will bet as much on Big Brown as he can muster.

"We've got the best horse," he announced. "I haven't seen any horse that can beat him." He had already suggested it would "take a tag team" to outrun Big Brown. If he breaks cleanly, he might have 15 of his 19 rivals cooked in 10 strides. After steering him in the Florida Derby last month, meanwhile, Kent Desormeaux acclaimed Big Brown as perhaps the best he has ridden – and he has already won the Kentucky Derby twice, on Real Quiet (1998) and Fusaichi Pegasus (2000).

Yet all this idolatry has the shallowest foundations. Big Brown has contested just three races and, while he has won them by an aggregate of 29 lengths, the old school cannot believe his hide will be thick enough for the mental and physical thorns of the "Run For The Roses". No Derby winner since 1915 has arrived with fewer than four starts.

But iconoclasm remains second nature to Dutrow, 48. Asked about Big Brown's inexperience, he shrugs: "All that means is we have the freshest horse." And the horse, in the American sense at least, certainly has the "freshest" trainer.

Friends consider Dutrow a brilliant eccentric. Others, however, worry that a history of suspensions betrays a sickness in the American Turf. Sometimes it was Dutrow himself who failed the dope tests – his licence was withheld after he tested positive for marijuana - and sometimes it has been his horses.

Dutrow has always denied giving them illegal medication, but does not deny making mistakes. "I've had so many different suspensions," he said this week. "Half of them I deserved. Half I didn't. I don't think I'm a person you would look to for guidance. The only thing I need is to be allowed to work around the horses. So when they give me back my licence after a suspension, I'm good to go. And even when I'm on my suspension, I'm going to try to sneak in, in the middle of the night, and look at my horses. I never should leave the barn. When I leave the barn, trouble starts."

Though the son of a record-breaking trainer, for a long time Dutrow struggled to make a name for himself. Instead he got himself a reputation. He spent most of 1997 sleeping in a tack-room at Aqueduct. The mother of his daughter had been murdered. He had just one or two claiming horses to keep him going. But he had a microwave, a phone, a mattress. Girls loved it. "It was my only chance to make it in New York," he said. "If I lost everything and I had to do it again, man, I'm there."

Spotted by a wealthy broker, Sanford Goldfarb, Dutrow elbowed his way through the ranks. Last autumn he won his third Breeders' Cup race, and hours before Big Brown won the Florida Derby Dutrow won two prizes at the Dubai World Cup meeting. Altogether he won races worth $4m in one day.

His late father once told a friend that Rick would either end up in the Hall of Fame or in the state penitentiary. "He's going to wind up being a lifer somewhere," he said. If Big Brown really is the horse of a lifetime, then those precarious odds must be tilting Rick's way.

Chris McGrath

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